“You know, there’s a porn store for Android . . . . You can download nothing but porn. . . . Your kids can download porn. That’s a place we don’t want to go, so we’re not going to go there.”
When later confronted by Ryan Tate from Gawker.com in an email, Jobs exclaimed, “Yep, freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin’, and some traditional PC folks feel like their world is slipping away.”
But, not long after he uttered those words, pornographers found a way into the iPhone. Not through apps, because Jobs has stood firm, but through a major feature of the new iPhone 4: a videoconference feature called FaceTime. In several cities, Craigslist ads have appeared seeking models to have video sex chats using FaceTime. “It has a very personal feel—your mobile phone to hers, ”said one porn-production spokesman, who will be charging by credit card close to $6 per minute for people to speak with his models.
As the Associated Press reported it, “It’s a maxim of technology: Invent the newest gadget and the porn industry will find a way to cash in.” It’s “the newest frontier of porn technology,” writes Dan Amira on New York magazine’s website:
And there’s nothing Apple can do about it, since they have no way of controlling how you use FaceTime. Steve Jobs may be a powerful man, but preventing the porn industry from co-opting a new form of technology is like trying to keep bloodthirsty zombies out of your house. You can board up the windows and bar the doors, but eventually they’ll find a way in anyway.
That’s a yucky metaphor, but it’s probably a true one. The film Middle Men, which opens today in theaters, tells a story of how pornographers exploited another technological innovation—online credit-card billing—to cash in. They’re the middle men of the porn industry, the ones whose technology for online credit-card billing made porn sales skyrocket with quick, easy, and anonymous transactions—or as the slogan on the poster calls them, “the men who brought XXX to the www.”
The story is inspired by the real-life experiences of Christopher Mallick, the former head of an Internet-billing company called Paycom that serviced porn sales. As Mallick told me in a phone interview, “about 80 percent is true, and we let the audience figure out the 20 percent that isn’t.”
As the story starts, the involvement of the middle men seems morally neutral—separate from the seedy business of pornography. As a character asks Jack Harris (Mallick’s character, played by Luke Wilson): If hotels like Hilton make money from renting out porn, “does that make them pornographers?”
But this façade doesn’t hold up for long: Soon Harris and the business are mixed up with gangs, drugs, theft, blackmail, kidnapping, and murder. Harris’ family life goes to the dumps—he ends up cheating on his wife and nearly abandoning his kids. It’s a storyline that perfectly captures what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “bad company corrupts good morals.”
Is this surprising? Pornography is Big Easy Money, and when there’s so much easy money being made so quickly, there’s fertile ground for greed and corruption. Mallick told me, “It was an insane business. It was draining physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually.” He added, “It’s a better movie than a business.”
Another unexpected mess that came with this business, as Mallick found out, is child pornography, which he admitted was “tough, early on, to control.” But this shouldn’t surprise anyone, right? Pornography was never a clean business, and no one ever thought it would bring about good things. But somehow it surprises us when it brings about bad things, like child porn.
Everyone agrees that child porn is wrong (well, everyone I suppose except maybe Peter Singer, depending on how old and sentient the child is and how much pleasure it brings the adult), and generally everyone agrees that children should not see adult porn. Both are illegal in this country, and both are forms of child abuse. But with porn as prevalent on the Internet as it is today, it’s nearly impossible to support pornography without supporting both child pornography and child exposure to pornography.
In 2007 the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that twenty percent of Internet porn is child porn. A 2005 study by Family Safe Media revealed that the “average age of first Internet exposure to pornography” was eleven years old, the largest group of viewers of Internet porn was children between ages twelve and seventeen, and that ninety percent of children polled between the ages of eight and sixteen have viewed porn, mostly while doing homework on the Internet.
Because Mallick saw this seedier side of the industry, he became a founding sponsor of the Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection in the efforts to combat it. But the Pandora’s box of Internet porn has been opened, and it’s much harder to stop child porn now that independent sources all over the web provide it—a situation for which the middle men are partly responsible.
So can we blame Steve Jobs for not wanting to be a middle man? Of course he can’t stop people from using the iPhone feature of FaceTime to create live porn if they want to. But FaceTime is a feature designed for multiple purposes, while the porn apps are designed for one. People who equate these aren’t making a serious point; they’re snarking about the futility of keeping technology clean—probably in the efforts to demoralize anyone who wants to. That’s a cheap tactic—like saying it’s not worth reporting child pornography because we’ll never be able to eradicate it completely. Of course it’s still worth the effort.
After seeing all the trouble the Internet porn industry brought Mallick, and all the trouble it brought the world, one can’t help but wonder: Would he do it all again? It makes a dramatic movie, but was it worth it?
We might get an answer from Mallick’s next project: a film documentary due out in October called Life After Porn, about the experiences of people who once worked with the porn industry but, like him, decided to leave.
After watching Mallick’s story in Middle Men, we get a glimpse of why Steve Jobs would rather not be one.
Mary Rose Somarriba is the managing editor of First Things.
Mary Eberstadt’s “The Weight of Smut”
Jason Byassee’s “Not Your Father’s Pornography”
Frederica Mathewes-Green’s “Internet Child Pornography”
The Witherspoon Institute’s Social Costs of Pornography Research Project
Family Safe Media’s Pornography Statistics
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Child Pornography Fact Sheet